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Is American Higher Ed Screwed? Conservatives Try to Privatize College As Tuition Soars

The economic crisis has created an opportunity for attacks on public institutions. Universities are not immune.

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Universities are in a bind: legislators cut higher education budgets but then push back against tuition increases. In Virginia, Republican Governor Robert McDonnell cut aid to Virginia Commonwealth University to punish them for a 24 percent tuition hike, even though the school was trying to make up for previous state cuts.

Students have been spared from some of the higher cost thanks to the federal government increasing grant aid for higher education from $25.2 billion to $41.3 billion in a single year. It’s also true that many students don’t pay the full sticker price. The so-called discount rate, the difference between the listed price and what students actually pay, has been on the rise. But these funds are not exclusively need-based, and there is concern that sticker shock may deter poor students from applying. And universities are taking on a lot of debt in the process.

The economic crisis has created an opportunity for attacks on public institutions, from unionized city workers to state funds for organ transplants. Universities, like other facets of contemporary life, are subject to the logic of the market. And it’s not just about cuts; it’s about how the university is being remade to operate according to the principles that guide multinational corporations.

In Texas, Republican Governor Rick Perry has packed the board of regents at all six state college systems with political allies who share his vision that “colleges [should be run] like businesses whose customers are students.” Texas A&M, the governor’s alma mater, now publicly lists the pay and benefits of all faculty members and compares them against the number of students taught and the amount of funds they attract through research. The university also pays “performance bonuses” based on student evaluations. Perry wants to replicate these reforms statewide.

The business approach has already taken over much of the politics surrounding secondary education, with charter schools and easy-to-fire, performance paid teachers touted as a silver bullet. High school reading and math test preparation has nudged aside courses on literature, art or history. The corporate makeover of higher ed has meant less job security for faculty, bigger salary differences between more or less “valuable" professors, and an attack on the humanities, from literature to philosophy.

Berkeley professor Wendy Brown says there is a “steadily widening divide between the humanities and ‘hard’ social sciences,” with conservatives looking to amputate the former.

In 2006, Pennsylvania State University’s political science department eliminated the subfield of political theory, the puzzlings of philosophers deemed too impractical. Humanities ask different questions in different sorts of ways--ways that are hard to assign a dollar value to but are nonetheless useful to citizens of a democracy. As Brown puts it, at risk “is not only medieval English poetry, Sanskrit, and political philosophy” but all “thinking, teaching, and learning that pertains to questions of what, apart from capital accumulation and appreciation, planetary life might be about or worth.”

At the other end of the disciplinary spectrum, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management is planning to go it alone: its funding will be completely private and they will have the right to charge students private-school level tuition and pay teachers whatever they want. The financial crisis documentary Inside Job details the conflicts of interest provoked by academic economists sitting on corporate and Wall Street boards. Higher ed’s growing reliance on corporate funds could allow business to drive research agendas and, perhaps, conclusions.

With university coffers pinched, social policies aimed to ensure equal access to higher education and diverse student bodies are taking a hammering from a decades-long backlash against the civil rights movement.